Planning a funeral: avoiding the pitfalls

Poppy Mardall, of Poppy’s Funerals, reveals how to avoid the pitfalls when planning a funeral – and the importance of shopping around.

FlowersOne thing we all have in common is that we’re all going to die. Yet the vast majority of us only think about death when we have to. So it’s no surprise that when it comes to organising a funeral, we couldn’t be more vulnerable and disempowered as consumers.

So why are we so vulnerable? Here are a few of the many reasons:

We’re inexperienced

Most of us will organise only one or two funerals in our lifetime, at the most. This doesn't give us enough time to learn from our mistakes so we can get it right next time. 

We don’t talk about it

We don’t spread the word about good or bad funeral experiences, so our peers won’t be as informed as they could be when it’s their turn to organise one.

If the experience has been bad, we tend not to admit to it, and would probably rather put it behind us. If the experience has been good, we may feel it would be interfering with another family's grief to recommend a funeral director. It’s a missed opportunity to learn from each other's experiences. 

We don't shop around

We're (understandably) either too emotionally exhausted to make comparisons, or feel that conversations about cost would disrespect the person we are planning the funeral for. 

We’re incredibly vulnerable to salesmanship

We may feel, or be led to believe, that the cost of the coffin, or the size of the floral tributes, is somehow representative of the amount of love we felt for the person who has passed away.

We don't know we have choices (or what we really want) 

We don't do our own research into the options available, and rely on the funeral director to guide us. So we can end up with a funeral that suits the funeral director, rather than ourselves, or the loved one who has passed away. Stories abound of families told the soonest date the funeral can be is in 2 weeks’ time, because of a busy diary at the crematorium, when it turns out that it’s the funeral director's diary that’s busy.

We often have low expectations

We don't expect to connect with the funeral director in the way that we’d expect to connect with, for example, nursery staff when considering childcare. Our attitude tends to be, ‘I don’t want to know what happens behind the scenes – just do what you need to do to get this over with.’

A funeral is considered a ‘distress purchase’

As consumers, we couldn't be more vulnerable than when we're sitting in the funeral director's office, bereaved, exhausted, inexperienced, and wanting to put the whole sorry business behind us. 

This is why arranging a funeral is known as a ‘distress purchase’. It is also why the average cost of a funeral is so high (about £3,590, according to a 2014 Sun Life survey).

Here are some tips to consider before you meet with a funeral director:

  • There is no legal obligation to use a funeral director. You’re entitled to take charge of some or all of the funeral arrangements yourself – if you plan to do this, you will need to contact the cemeteries and crematorium department of your local council. If you are on a low income and need help to pay for a funeral that you're arranging, see to find out more.
  • If you do employ a funeral director, shop around. Spend some time finding the right one; don’t employ the first funeral director you find. They should meet your high expectations, and you should feel confident in them, with your needs understood. If shopping around sounds too much at a difficult time, ask a friend or family member if they can do it for you.
  • Funerals don’t have to be expensive. Don’t be pushed into buying things you don’t want or need. The cost of the funeral doesn’t correlate with how much we loved the person who died. Somehow we lose this knowledge in the funeral director’s office.
  • Take time to talk and research before you make any firm arrangements. If you arrive at the funeral director’s with no knowledge of what you want, you are in a vulnerable position. You wouldn’t go to a garage to buy a car without initial research, or by blindly taking the salesperson’s advice. So as much as possible, try and go into the meeting with clear wishes and objectives. Being armed with information is the only way to get the experience you want.

Prepare your future executors

Try to talk about what you’d want for your own funeral with family and friends. Someone will be responsible for organising things once you have passed away, and without clear instructions, they won’t have the tools they need to help them get through a really difficult time.

Your future executors may have no idea whether you wanted to be buried or cremated. More often than not, they will end up following the guidance of somebody who knew little about you or your family. If you are open about what you’d like for yourself, they will be able to do things your way.

And finally, make the most of the resources available:

About the author

Poppy Mardall is director at Poppy’s Funerals, which has featured in national press and media including the Independent, Daily Mail, Tatler and Radio 4. Poppy won the Good Funeral Award for the ‘Most promising new funeral director’ in 2013 and was named as one of Management Today's 35 Women Under 35.